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People in jianghu were making a terrible fuss, but who had actually seen the Lapis Armor’s key before?
Wen Kexing had.
He recalled that the ‘key’ that had initiated countless bloody tempests had actually been only a cun long, thin as a cicada’s wing, and weighed practically nothing in the hand, like some kind of oddly-shaped, beaded flower that a young lady would wear in her hair.
What a terrible flower.
Atop Fengya Mountain, fierce wind blew at Wen Kexing’s long robes. His palm was bruising. The Hanged Ghost had just died by his hand; his corpse had already fallen beneath the cliffs, gone, and from that point on, there would be even more people hiding bodies there.
Mortal humans cannot enter this land of evil spirits at will?
Very well! I, in a shell of mortality, will nudge this spirit world over for you to take a look.
He opened his hand and flung. The lightweight key had turned into bits of dust in his palm, falling into the infinite depths of the cliffs below.
“Ah-Xiang, let’s go.”
He situated himself into orientation of a watching bystander, then brought his little girl with him to hike through jianghu for over three months, waiting for various people to make their appearances. Within those months, he went from lands of luxuriant forests and growing bamboo, to passing through seas of yellow sand and desert, to drinking a sip of a sunny day’s snow, then to the fair hands of this brothel beauty, filling his lungs with the cosmetic fragrance of pear flowers.
Afterwards, in Jiangnan, he came across a vagrant that was sunbathing as he leaned against the corner of a wall.
Vagrants were nothing strange. What was strange was that he noticed a faint light hung in the eyes and condensed on the lashes of the man, then felt like something had stuck into his heart, as if he had witnessed the rise of peace and crush of defeat therein. Love and hatred acquired over generations, gratitude and vengeance gained since time immemorial — all that had been pressing heavily down upon his chest was lightened a tad, beyond his control.
“All my life of being down and out, I return to the inside of the goblet…” he suddenly recited.
Ah-Xiang was a dumb girl that didn’t understand dogcrap. She couldn’t even comprehend the words of humans clearly, to say nothing of any sorrowful past happenings or plaintive anxieties of the present year. He had no choice but to gloss over it with a smile.
Against expectations, Ah-Xiang leaned full out the window, looked down, and then crisply called out on the next beat: “Young Master, look at that guy. If you say he’s a beggar, he doesn’t have any worn bowl next to him for that. If you say he’s not, he’s been sitting there stupidly all morning without doing anything other than grin like an idiot. Is he an idiot?”
In that moment, Wen Kexing was a teeny bit angered, as if a corner of his thoughts had been pried into, as if this stupid girl had thrown a rock into nice, mirror-like waters, causing ripples to go off in all directions.
He settled himself, however, and gave a collected reply. “He’s sunbathing.”
He noticed that the beggar had listened in on them, actually raising his head to glance at him. They were on a balcony, the street was wide, and the sounds of humans were akin to a boiling pot. With that sort of hearing strength…
Wen Kexing stroked the tips of his chopsticks, his recent languidness vanquished. Those martial arts were not weak. Below the surface of Jiangnan, an undercurrent was fiercely swelling, and it was already a season of turmoil. Those that came and went from every major sect, hailed as famous, were not few — which road had this one come from?
That night, Wen Kexing brought Ah-Xiang with him to think up of every possible method for tailing the vagrant, but unexpectedly, he got to see a good show in a worn-out hall that was leaking air from all four of its sides.
In today’s martial circle, people with that insight, that skill, and that presence could be counted on both hands — which one was he? In truth, Wen Kexing himself couldn’t say for certain whether he had followed him out of caution, or simply pure curiosity.
Some people, who flaunted themselves as being lonely at the top for long, upon abruptly meeting someone who caught their eye, would typically be unable to resist chasing them down to thoroughly scrutinize them.
Yet, he had never thought that this chase would inextricably entangle him for more than half his lifespan.
From that rundown hall in the middle of nowhere, a kid that only knew how to cry was escorted all the way to Lake Tai. Zhao Jing, the Qiushan swordsman of the lake, was his number one, lifetime enemy.
Emotions running all over the place inside this illustration, he opposed the one who had been bought off for two silver coins all day long. At times, Wen Kexing would ponder: had he not stirred up this reservoir of disastrous water, would Zhang Chengling have been able to remain in obscurity, relying on his father’s protection to live his life?
Even though jianghu folk would inevitably sigh at the mention of this tiger of a father having a dog of a son, that tiger father would at least still be around. With both parents, his family would have been thriving financially. What would it matter, if he lived through life behind closed doors?
Wen Kexing’s chest held demons, shame, and a heart that was infinitely frozen. Hence, he was obliged to not betray any of his complex emotions, pestering the vagabond Ah-Xu regardless of consequences.
As for the man’s origin, Wen Kexing already had a guess, but he still couldn’t understand him in any way. Why did someone whose authority had reached such a high extent lower himself to advancing and retreating as suitable? The endless carnage he had experienced was like one big dream, where he floated through life like so; how could he still harbor the cultivated heart of a child?
At the time they were both together in the Yellow Springs, Wen Kexing couldn’t resist feeling out for a Lapis Armor piece on the imp’s body, but ended up bumping against a flexible nail.
For writers, the precious was treasured. For warriors, might — what ties did he have with that foreign, discordant object?
He knew that this sickly devil, completely sallow in complexion and nothing much to look at, had instantly and firmly been branded onto the soft flesh of his heart.
Following that, even the Poisonous Scorpions got mixed in with this. Heroes and cowards of all walks of life had come to put on their own performances, occupying the small stage to its brim. Ah-Xu and he escorted Zhang Chengling back to those upright factions that had mouths full of ‘traditional virtues’, and partway through, he watched the man give that dumb kid pointers on martial arts; for a moment, he couldn’t resist wanting to show off his skill, also striking out a move or two.
He didn’t expect that Ah-Xu, from one sword move that had been morphed beyond recognition, would be able to readily expose the history of the ‘Qiuming Sword’.
The Heavens and the Earth were manifest, and jianghu was so vast; who would remember its wanderers that were as fleeting as shooting stars?
Only he could.
For such a short period of time, the world was their hut. Wen Kexing found a tiny space that was three-chi-wide, where he could peacefully sit down with another like so, and reminisce together about an old married couple, who, as far as the majority of folks in this world were concerned, had no significance.
He listened to the man’s mild voice, amidst the wind and insects’ chirps. “If someone has only themself their whole life, on-guard against everyone aside from themself at all times and all places, never being close to anyone, never feeling anything for anyone, only loving themself… wouldn’t that be miserable? Being a bad guy… is too painful.”
Wen Kexing had a sort of impulse at that time, wanting to pour out all of the suffering he’d had in his life, dump out the grievances that filled his chest for his unstated confidante to see. However, he never had a way to do so, only able to divulge a couple phrases by means of a disharmonious, roving, Qin Hui-like tale.
Too painful! he thought. Being a bad guy is too painful.
Why couldn’t you and I have met each other ten years earlier, Ah-Xu? Why is it that when I did meet you, I was already something both human and ghost, yet not either, and you were already near death from injury? Why, in this world, do homes and happiness always get destroyed, and friends and confidantes always meet up late?
Heroes will get to the ends of their roads, beauties will lose their charms as they age… if someone wants to live according to their own hearts, how difficult should that be?
It might have started from there, where an inner demon-like obsession suddenly birthed in his heart. He thought, Why can I not follow my own desires this one time? Why can I not keep him with me?
Inside Puppet Manor, when availing himself of the man’s heavy injury, he was momentarily lost in madness, wanting to press a hand into his qihai acupoint, thinking, I just need a bit. Even if it hurts some, I just need a bit. Then I can keep Ah-Xu in the palm of my hand for a long, long time.
That path of accumulated callousness was nevertheless defeated by the strike of that slightly distressed phrase: “Other people don’t understand, but do you not understand, either?”
How can I not understand?
Of all the living things he had seen in his life, Ah-Xu alone weighed heavily on the innermost part of his heart. He conceded to the damned drifter, conceding until that gouged out his heart and eroded his bones, until he couldn’t bear to disobey him the slightest bit.
This was exactly what it felt like to be human.
The world’s villains, unparalleled in contemptibility, were like carps crossing the river. There were also uncommon folks similar in greatness to Long Que. That year at Puppet Manor had almost been the most calm and happy one he’d had in his thirty years of life.
He, Ah-Xu, and the brat Zhang Chengling would kill fowl, stew meat, boil mutton, and slaughter cows, divvying up a bowl of raw, rural wine.
He took Ah-Xu’s hand, which would easily get cold after his injury, into his arms to warm it, then felt like his own heart was melting, too. He believed himself to be a little intoxicated, somehow.
Ah-Xu’s mouth was unkind, but his heart was unbearably soft.
Ah-Xu was a grown man, yet he was still too afraid to eat walnuts.
Ah-Xu was a quaffer that drank both good and inferior wine down.
A confidante he had the luck to come across in his life, a close friend… a beloved.
Yet, he ended up having to awaken from this dream. There were still many disturbances happening in jianghu. The grisly storm he had set into motion himself had never once stopped for a break, and Green Bamboo Ridge was in dangerous turmoil. Many parties had since arrived, while a counterweight had yet to return to its position.
As he was the smooth-talking outsider, Old Wen, he was also the Ghost Master, whose red clothes had been dyed with blood. Those two people, who should have been completely irrelevant to each other, had been forcefully pinned into the same body due to deep enmity. How bizarre was that?
He finally got to cut down his foes, one by one, in this last battle, but he also lost his little girl in purple.
Ah-Xiang, gege’s taking revenge for you. If you have a next life, you have to be reborn into a good family, with parents to protect and support you, and siblings to love and cherish you. When the time comes for your ten li of dowry, you can pick your affinity with your fool of a boy, Cao Weining, back up, where you’ll be a perfect match. Don’t have anything to do with the plagues of the righteous and the demonic ever again.
When he faced the Scorpions by his lonesome, he was covered in blood and sweat. Looking towards the empty sky, he reminisced on the recompense of his own immense hatred, an indescribable exhaustion within him.
He thought, My grudge is appeased. Death would be becoming. I may as well just… give up, right?
But somebody wasn’t going to let death end his troubles.
When Ah-Xu came with Baiyi’s swordlight, like an elegant nobleman of scholardom, the emotions in Wen Kexing’s heart could not be clearly explained to outsiders.
What decades-long grudge? What silent suffering? What Lapis Armor? All of that was quickly cast to the back of his mind. Aside from the vagrant in front of him, he could no longer see anything else.
Captivated in such an instant, he thought, As long as he’s willing to give me the tiniest bit of affection, from this point on, every day he lives, I will live with him. If he passes on, I will hold a bundle of dry grass, douse myself in kerosene, and burn up together with him, turning to ash, becoming one with the earth in the same spot.
As long as you’re willing, as long as you want me…
Can I make an extravagant request for a minute, to be with you until we grow the white hairs of age?